Diverse Voices: The Stigma of Being a `Diversity Writer’

Oct 2, 2006  •  Post A Comment

By Sylvia Franklin

I never thought this column would include the kind of secrecy that harkens back to the dark days of Watergate and Deep Throat, but I have several sources who did not want to be identified with their respective opinions on what exactly the big stigma is regarding “diversity writers” in the industry.

Writers of diverse backgrounds-blacks, women, the disabled, Latinos, Asians and others-have had the opportunity to participate in network programs designed to get them a foot in the writers’ room door. But the “diversity writer” label leaves a decidedly unpalatable aftertaste that many people, diversity candidates included, would prefer to do without.

So why the dislike for the label? Because it can diminish others’ expectations about a writer’s ability and career longevity. Most diversity writers don’t want to go on the record about the subject for fear of being, no pun intended, blackballed.

Perception is everything, and if people think you’re incapable of being a team player, you’ll be that last kid on the playground waiting to get the gig.

I’ve been told that being on staff of a prime-time TV show (OK, any show) is pretty much the ultimate for most professional writers. Being a paid writer is the bee’s knees. But walking into a situation where the executive producer has basically been force-fed your bio and stats, without benefit of a cocktail and dinner, is akin to being Hester Prynne walking through the village square. Doomed writer walking.

To quote one of the sources, “Going through one of those programs is like special ed. You’re looked at differently.” Sometimes you’re treated differently.

One source recalls a particular morning when every writer on staff was called to the writers’ room, except him. The sting of that, the humiliation of that, still lingers. Others remember being singled out on perceived bad pitches or poor fixes.

To complain or not to complain: That is the question. And it’s difficult to instill faith and bonhomie when you can’t get any face time with the boss, especially when you work with that person every day. And time stands still for no one. The shelf life on these amazing opportunities is one season. After your term has expired, you swim with the fishes like the rest.

Here’s the thing about diversity talent-they’re free. Not as in they work for free, but as in the salary for said writer doesn’t come from the show’s budget. The networks pay for this writer through their programs.

And this practice doesn’t exactly lend itself to people making a big fuss about how they got there. The first days of work are really interesting. This is the time everyone checks you out to see who you know-or rather, how connected you are. Because once everyone knows you’ve been through the (insert program), you are seen as someone who’s a bit more expendable, someone who didn’t really earn the right to be there.

And it’s odd because this is free labor, right? You’d think most executive producers would take advantage of this extra pair of hands to pitch in, to lighten the loads of the more experienced staffers, right? Uh, no. Again, most executive producers don’t like being told what to do, so when they are … you get the picture.

And herein lies the rub for most diversity writers. Getting the first job through one of these programs can be a blessing. It ain’t easy, because you’re vetted through many, many layers at the production company, studio and network. But say you make it, and, you get a job out of it. Hallelujah! Then you work 237 percent harder to keep the job.

But say your show is canceled. (Which statistically is more likely to occur than not. Four out of every five new shows fail.) What happens when the time comes to get the second job?

Most diversity writers don’t get the second job.

Recruitment and placement, not career retention, are high priorities for these programs. There is a diminishing middle class in the professional writer ranks of TV. There are plenty of experienced and emerging writers, but people in the middle have a hard time being seen and getting hired. Typical reason: lack of funding.

So the questions remain, are these programs-some diversity, some not, valuable? And is the stigma attached to the diversity label worth it?

In my humble opinion, abso-freakin’-lutely.

Some phenomenal talents have come through these programs. They’ve added depth, scope and life-altering perspective to TV’s power to tell stories. These programs provide access. These programs find great talent. These programs promote cultural awareness.

You can’t determine where you come from, but you sure can shape where you go, and how you get there. I’m told the best advantage to being inside is aligning yourself with more seasoned writers and cultivating those relationships so by the time these wonderful beings are working elsewhere, they’ll hopefully consider you for employment.

And that’s all any of us really want-just the chance to be seen, heard and employed.

Sylvia Franklin is a television writer living in Los Angeles. She is co-chair of the WGA’s Committee of Black Writers and president of the Organization of Black Screenwriters. Ms. Franklin currently holds a nonwriting position on Fox’s “Prison Break.”